Worries about seasickness and visions of icebergs discouraged me from taking a cruise until 2014 when I boarded a ship to tour the fjords of Iceland!
Two months ago, I embarked on my sixth cruise, to the northernmost state of Alaska. My husband went along for a week-long celebration of our anniversary. Now a veteran of the seas, I've learned what can turn a good cruise into a great cruise.
Packing the Minimum
Admittedly, I overpacked for that first cruise. Two suitcases accompanied me on my first cruise. I regretted the double suitcases when I had to roll them through a long underground tunnel to our hotel. At the time, a long cruise near the Arctic Circle with two formal nights seemed to necessitate the extra sweaters, shoes, and dresses.
Over time, I cut down to one suitcase, but there were still items that stayed on the hanger. Finally, in May 2023, I was diligent in minimizing what I packed. Here's the formula for a seven-day cruise:
3 -4 bottoms, including one pair of jeans. Choose neutral colors - I had black and navy leggings. For variable weather, take 2-3 of each long and short.
3 tops that can be worn with most (or all) of the bottoms. For colder climates, fleece or sweaters, or long sleeves.
1 turtleneck that can be a warm layer under any of the tops - I had a navy blue.
1 dressy top - my concession to "formal night."
2 pairs of shoes - flats for the ship, and athletic shoes for off-ship.
1 item of outerwear - a coat since I was traveling to Alaska, otherwise a jacket would be fine.
Miscellaneous: A roll of tape to post notes on the mirror, a portable charger like an iWalk, a wristwatch if you will be traveling through different time zones and small sizes of toiletries you can toss at the end of the trip. En route: I wore the black leggings, a 4th top, flats, and a black hoodie.
(Author photos: the two suitcases packed for my first cruise, me with a turtleneck/fleece combo in Alaska, and the wardrobe following the formula for my next trip in a few weeks.)
Dining On and Off the Ship
Dining aboard the ship can be overwhelming with all the choices. My advice is to simply "you do you." Don't feel obligated to eat at the buffet just because it's "all you can eat." Though it can be the quickest way to get a meal, it's the busiest venue for any meal. I love being served in the dining rooms, but the service can be slow. Some tips that worked for me aboard ship:
Order coffee delivered to your cabin early in the morning. Add cold items if you want, just avoid a hot meal since it may not arrive that way.
Ask your steward to bring ice and refresh the ice bucket every afternoon. I order cans of soda to keep in the small refrigerator, and it's great to have the ice on hand.
Check out the small venues for pastries, sandwiches, pizza, or hamburgers.
In the port cities, look for local restaurants on the side streets. I recommend always trying locally brewed beer. Highly recommend it, in fact. Ask your servers for ideas, or choose the known specialties - cod in Iceland or scones in Great Britain. I'm still dreaming about that sticky toffee pudding I had in Chester, England.
(Author photos: enjoying an exclusive brew on Guernsey Island, scones in Northern Ireland, and local beer in Juneau.)
A cabin with a balcony is worth the extra money. Nothing compares to the view - I have never tired of seeing the water. If you don't have a balcony, take the time to find the best places for viewing. Check the bow (front) and stern (back) of the ship for window seating. Other locations are dining venues that are only open for dinner - typically quiet and out of the way. Many cruising aficionados love sitting on the deck, but I have always found the deck to be too chilly and windy.
(Author photos: views from our balcony, all incredible, no matter where in the world.)
Internet access is another extra I recommend. It is expensive, but messenger apps can be the only way to communicate while out at sea. I liked knowing my family could contact me. Using the internet to load pictures into social media or post selfies on Instagram are two of my favorite holiday activities, so I didn't want to give those up. If the internet package is out of your budget, you can usually find a Wi-Fi hotspot at the port entry or at local restaurants.
Formal portraits are another worthwhile splurge. Take time for a few sessions with the onboard photographer. There's no obligation to buy, but choosing one or two is a perfect way to remember the cruise.
(Author photos: A formal night portrait, a casual and fun pose, and a perfect memory for our anniversary cruise.)
Choosing excursions in each port is one of the most important decisions to make. Most itineraries only stay one day per location and have a dozen or more options. You can decide to explore on your own - which is much cheaper - but keep in mind the deadline to return to the ship. (Here's where that wristwatch comes in handy!)
So how do I choose? I want an experience that matches my lifestyle and interests, and I also appreciate wandering on my own. There may be connections to your family roots, shows, favorite shows, or a book you've read. Here are some very different experiences and why I chose them.
Alaskan Malamute Sled Dogs, Alaska (ship excursion) Perfect for "dog people." We spent the morning with sled teams at their summer camp. Our guide piloted the sled through a short ground trail, explaining how she knows all the personalities of her team. After the ride, we got to meet each dog and cuddle puppies!
Shetland Island (private tour) A private tour can be customized for your interests. I am a knitter, and our guide arranged for a renowned yarn store to open early for us. We were able to cover a lot of the Shetlands with no crowds.
Guernsey Island (explored on our own) For ports located right in the city, you can easily explore on foot, though larger ports may have a shuttle to take you to the middle of town. St. Peter Port in Guernsey was convenient, and we explored the historic church and found a wonderful restaurant.
(Author photos: Happy time with the sled dogs in Alaska, an expert explaining how fleeces are made into yarn in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, and the historic Town Church in St. Peter Port, Guernsey Island.)
I've already planned two cruises for 2024! What questions or tips do you have for me?
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